Seeking progress

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How do I write my novels? The answer, of course, is ‘badly’ – but do I plan ahead or do I just start writing and find my path amongst the thickets? The answer lies somewhere in the middle.

Every time I try and start a book I sit down, hopefully in a coffee shop somewhere (obviously not at the moment) and make a page of illegible notes which I’ll then almost totally ignore. It’s not wonderfully efficient but it’s always worked for me; sketching out the mechanics of an Antarctic research base, for example, and letting the plot flow freely through my subconscious.

Then I say to myself, ‘right, next time I’m going to try and do it properly. I will plan things out. I will, dare I say it, outline.’ And I never do.

My last attempt was for Our Kind of Bastard. I created four different spreadsheets. I had charts saying who was doing what where and when. I was organised – and then I started to write the damn thing and realised that, for all my planning, I’d only plotted about a quarter of the novel and I’d barely kept to that anyway.

This is not a bad thing, necessarily. Being bound too tight to a map means that there’s no room for a minor character to swoop in and bowl you off your feet. There’s a pressure to keep conformity, even if you find a more interesting trail to follow. The scenic route can be rewarding in itself.

Incidentally, Chuck Wendig’s been giving some Gentle Writing Advice on his Twitter stream recently. The one that caught my eye is this: we are urged to ‘trim the fat’ off our manuscripts, to make every word relevant and apposite. But sometimes fat gives flavour and we shouldn’t be afraid of that.

In any case, now I am trying to sketch out a plan for a new novel – a follow-up to OKOB, which is in itself a sequel to Oneiromancer – and I am struggling. Inspiration is sadly lacking. So I’m trying to compensate by working hard.

I am, for the first time ever, writing down what may come to be a whole plot before I start the actual scribbling. It may not be: I reserve the right to start writing before I’ve got all the details locked in. And I reserve the right to deviate horribly before I’ve got to the end of the first chapter.

But I am struggling with my brain at the moment. I want to start something new but am finding it difficult. This is my way of steering around obstacles: I will not wait for a blinding flash of lightning to illuminate my way; I will turn on my pitifully feeble torch and seek out a path yard by yard, bitter inch by bitter inch.

Your method may vary. For me this is currently how I’m seeking progress.

The scene that would not die


I am writing the scene that will not die.

I am working on a scene that has, so far, taken over a week’s work. It’s not especially complicated – it’s my heroes breaking into a shop – but it’s taking an eternity to get through. And at least part of the reason is this: I’m not sure what I want to happen. I lack an exit point and I’m not sure just what I’m doing.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I have no deadline or especial expectations. I can afford to take my time. But by golly it’s hard work.

It’s also not something I’d recommend. I think the best writing is done when you know where you’re trying to get to – even if you have lots of deviations and diversions on the way, and even if that end-point changes – because you have an aim and are less likely to waffle to try and cover that you don’t really know where you’re heading.

It’s always been my mantra: have an end-point. Know where you’re going, if not exactly how you’re getting there. But today I find myself without that pole-star, that lodestone, to guide me. I am rudderless, but finding myself oddly liberated by the ignorance I carry.

There are advantages to going in plan-less. You can draw up the scene in little bits, one step at a time. You can let the story develop around you. You can find your way through the paths your characters take: an organic development, the slowness giving you space to develop your ideas and tell you just where they need to go.


This is, of course, an illustration of the difference between plotting and pantsing (a word I still hate). I’ve always been a loose combination of both, but in this particular scene I’ve swung decisively into the pantsing camp. And I am finding it oddly liberating.

I’m under no illusions that it’ll need a thorough edit before it’s ready even for a normal run-of-the-mill readthrough. There always is the tendency, when you don’t quite know what you’re doing, to take refuge in description because you yourself don’t know what’s in the room, for example, or precisely what that mysterious masked stranger looks like (or even just who they are). Similarly, you end up saying everything in conversation because you don’t know just what it is you’re trying to say.

And this method is slow. As I said, it’s been over a week in the writing, scratching a line at a time and drinking copious amounts of coffee, procrastinating wildly rather than getting down to the serious business of thinking.

But I am getting through it. I’ve just got to the point where I invoke Chandler’s Law, which opens up new realms of decisions and choices, all of which will take me further into knowing just where the novel will take me next, and beyond that, and beyond that.

The scene that will not die may well end up being the most important in the entire novel. If only I could work out just what I’m trying to do.

How to rite a novil


I don’t sit down and outline every scene before I set pen to paper, though I often wonder if I should. Nor do I set out writing without any sort of idea where I’m going. I am neither a plotter nor a pantser. I am something in between, as I suspect most people are.

The way I write a novel is this: badly.

Just kidding (maybe). To be serious: a novel starts with an idea that then spends a long time revolving around the cranium as the tone, characters and locations simmer and settle. Then, maybe a year, maybe several years after the initial flame, I’ll come up with a starting point and an end point and I’ll start writing.

I’ll then stop writing as I realise I don’t know what I’m doing. So at this point I’ll do a bout of planning; of writing down some key points I want to visit; some key characters and intrigues and betrayals. Then I’ll start writing again.

This time I’ll get a bit further before I find I’m writing myself into another hole; that what’s going on the page isn’t covered by my sketchy notes and I need to stop again. There then follows a bout of soul-searching. More notes are written, crossed out and reassessed, like so:


…and so the endless circle continues. I see a little ahead. I write. I realise that this thread is going to cause me problems. I get depressed. I stop and try to think. I see a little further ahead so I write…

Does this make me a plotter or a pantser? Of course it’s neither, which is why I find the terms so reductive as to be useless. (Plus I hate the term ‘pantser’. It’s such an ugly mangling of the language, and such an ugly image is conjured.)

Unless it’s just me. Are there really people out there who can write a whole novel by the seat of their pants, without any sessions of brain-work at all? Can you really be led entirely by the flowing of the pen?

Are there really people who plan out every scene in detail before committing pen to paper? I can just about imagine there are, but if so… how? Do you need to be an expert in narrative structure or something, because I’ve never managed to fill in all the gaps before starting. Surely it’s a thankless, joyless task to fully outline a story without giving it some blood in the writing?

What sayest thou?

Of course, I write this post just as I reach a brick wall in my own writing; a state of stuckness that makes me reevaluate my decision to ever start this novel. Ploughing onwards isn’t getting me anywhere so I must pause and try and gain some big picture perspective. But that’s damn hard work and I’m not the sharpest tool in the box. Or at least I’m not today.

Whatever the method, it seems that there’s nothing easy about writing a novel.